African American artist John Farrar's family finds his work a troubled legacy

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010

What is one moment of fame worth?

John Farrar was a country boy barely out of puberty when he won the Washington Times-Herald's outdoor art fair in 1942, quickly becoming one of the most promising black artists of his generation. Within a few years, his work would be exhibited alongside that of Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and Loïs Mailou Jones. He would beat noted abstract artist Romare Bearden in a prestigious art competition in Atlanta. And his work would be included in a major exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century African American art in New York.

And then, just like that, he was never heard from again.

Farrar kept painting, but only when his alcoholism and schizophrenia permitted. He spent his adulthood as a ward of the state, either in prison or in insane asylums. On the rare occasions when he was free, he wandered the bars along U Street, channeling his substantial talent into drawings that he traded for drinks. When he died at St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1972 at 44, his personal belongings consisted of $1.30 and more than 60 paintings of unknown value.

His story would have ended there, a tragic footnote in some art history textbook. But it turned out to be a prologue to more misfortune and heartbreak for his niece and nephew, Sonja and Adrian McCoy, art world novices who took on the task of safeguarding his legacy.

Adrian McCoy is 56, divorced, and without a steady job or a permanent address. Last year he was evicted from his apartment in Northeast Washington and has been living with friends. An electrician, he has had a hard time finding work since the housing market collapsed more than two years ago. For months, the only jobs he could get -- crowd control at Wal-Mart, moving office furniture -- "didn't challenge my mental capacities," he grumbled. And the minimum wage pay was barely enough to keep him fed and put a few dollars' worth of gas in his truck. He gets by on humor. He is prone to long, funny rants about the origins of canola oil and the superiority of blues music. At 6 feet and 200 pounds, he can also be intimidating, especially when his temper gets the better of him.

Much of his spare time is spent trying to help his only sibling, Sonja, 57, who recently lost her double-wide trailer in Plymouth, N.C., to foreclosure. A tiny woman whose big brown eyes clearly mark her as Adrian's sister, Sonja suffered a stroke last year that has left her unable to work full time. Last year she turned to her neighbor's church to pay her electric bill. She has relied on Adrian to help cover her water bill. For a while she also lacked health insurance, which in her case is potentially life-threatening since she suffers from an aggressive form of diabetes. She is supposed to take insulin, but for months she rationed it for fear of running out.

While their Uncle John stayed with them from time to time, Sonja and Adrian's memories of him are hazy. Sonja recalls her mother fussing at him once to leave their house. She still has a poem he wrote for her when she was a baby. Adrian remembers when he was in grade school opening the front door to find Secret Service agents asking for his uncle. He learned only recently that his uncle had written threatening paranoid ramblings to the president, which earned him a White House case file and a routine Secret Service visit.

Brother and sister are more familiar with the paintings their uncle gave their mother, Maggie McCoy, especially the handful that hung on the walls of their Brightwood home when they were growing up. There was a somber rendering of "The Last Supper" over the mantel in the living room, and an image of a dour-looking baby in a halo called "Christ Child" in Sonja's bedroom. In the dining room was "Ola's Dolls," part of a series of brightly colored paintings featuring rag dolls with clownlike faces.

The pieces were products of one of their uncle's longer stints at St. Elizabeths. Before he was ill, he was known for his portraits of society figures, black and white, and for everyday street scenes that subtly captured life in segregated Washington. But later in life, Farrar turned inward, and his choice of subjects ranged from the religious to the bizarre. The weirder stuff -- such as a set of paintings of children with blurry faces rendered in short, angry brush strokes -- stayed in the basement, wrapped in newspaper. Whenever it rained heavily, Adrian remembers running downstairs to save them before the basement flooded.

Adrian and Sonja took charge of the paintings, 63 in all, when their mother died in 1972. For years, Sonja kept the paintings under her bed in her Silver Spring apartment. Then Adrian had them, stashed in a closet in his wife's house until his divorce in 2006. In 2007, Sonja left her job as a meeting planner and relocated to North Carolina to be closer to her son Sean and his two daughters. After she moved in with her son last year, Sean moved most of the paintings to Virginia Beach, while Adrian kept a few in Washington.

Most of the McCoys' paintings are not on par with the handful of Farrar pieces that belong to the seminal Barnett-Aden Collection of African American art, now owned by billionaire Robert Johnson. But theirs is the largest collection of Farrar's work. The rest of his considerable output is scattered, remnants of a disordered life.

Jerry Langley, a local art collector who wrote a 2003 scholarly article on Farrar, says he knows of about 100 Farrar paintings in existence, mostly in private collections. One painting, for example, originally sold to Times-Herald publisher Eleanor "Cissy" Patterson, ended up in the hands of a local collector, who picked it up at an estate sale for her former son-in-law, muckraking journalist Drew Pearson.

"When I get a name," Farrar promised his sister in a 1962 letter, "[the paintings] will be worth something."

Farrar was prone to making overblown statements about his art. They riddle the multiple phone-book-size files documenting his many stays at St. Elizabeths. But he received some posthumous corroboration in the mid-1990s from the late Adolphus Ealey, the former curator and owner of the Barnett-Aden Collection. Ealey appraised the paintings the McCoys own at a combined value of $410,000.

Ealey never explained quite how he reached that figure. Farrar's works have, as far as Adrian and Sonja know, never been sold at public auction -- a standard base line used by dealers. (In 1998, Johnson paid $6 million for the entire Barnett-Aden Collection, which includes work by nearly 70 artists.) The price of art is subject to all sorts of intangible variables. And most art dealers would be reluctant to rely on an appraisal as old as Ealey's. But for Adrian and Sonja, that appraisal is not merely a snapshot in time but a fixed starting point, a base line from which the value can only go up. It is a mindset that has not always served them well.

Last year, Sonja got in touch with Darrell Walker, former head coach of the Washington Wizards and now a coach for the Detroit Pistons. Walker has amassed a significant collection of African American art and asked how much Adrian and Sonja wanted for "Car Washer," a scene of a man washing a car in an alley. Ealey had appraised it for $15,000. Adrian had read somewhere that art appreciates at 3 percent a year and decided to tack on 1 percent, bringing his asking price to $18,000. Walker didn't respond; then, earlier this year he offered, through a reporter, to meet with Adrian in person. Adrian didn't bother responding.

Adrian had a similar exchange with another collector, Bernard Kinsey, six years earlier. Kinsey, a wealthy businessman from Los Angeles who, along with his wife Shirley has amassed one of the largest private collections of African American art and artifacts, had offered $9,000 for several of Farrar's pieces. Edward Pratt, an art consultant who introduced Kinsey to the McCoys, tried to persuade Sonja and Adrian that even though the price was less than they hoped for, it was worth it to get their uncle's paintings in Kinsey's collection, which had a good shot at landing a show at a major art institution. Having Farrar's work displayed in a famous museum would in turn boost the value of the other pieces they owned.

Adrian wasn't convinced. The art market was booming then, and he felt if he agreed, he would be selling the paintings "dirt cheap." Since Ealey had appraised the paintings for a total of $20,000, Adrian countered with that figure. He never heard from Kinsey again. An exhibit of the Kinsey collection went on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History on Oct. 15.

At the time, Adrian and Sonja were not in a rush to sell. Both of them were working. They thought they could afford to wait for the right offer. As their economic situations have changed for the worse, however, the temptation to sell has grown stronger. So far they have chosen to hold out for selfless and selfish reasons. They want to protect the value of their uncle's work. They also want to maximize their profit. And since $10,000 or even $20,000 would not have been enough to save Sonja's house or buy a permanent home for Adrian, they see settling for a less-than-ideal offer as squandering their inheritance.

Their patience may yet be rewarded. But art insiders aren't so sure. George Hemphill, a local art dealer and gallery owner who showed pieces from the Barnett-Aden Collection in January 2009, including one by Farrar, said families of dead artists frequently overestimate the value of their relative's work.

He said that even for living artists, "unless the whole machinery of the art world turns in favor of that artwork regardless of how good it is, [the value of the art] is hard to get across."

* * *

The people who most covet Farrar's work remain his family. Distant cousins proudly claim him. One even owns a painting he did of her ex-husband as a child that she jokingly says she "borrowed" from his mother. For Adrian and Sonja, infighting over their uncle's paintings has spawned a more serious rift with Sonja's son Sean.

The troubles began last year when Sonja moved to North Carolina. Relocating was originally Sean's idea. After seeing Sonja struggle to pay her bills, Sean and his wife Michelle suggested she move in with them. The couple had their own money problems. Sean had filed for bankruptcy in 2008. But he and his wife insisted on helping Sonja and came up with a plan: They would rent her house, help her find work in Virginia Beach and sell a few of her uncle's paintings so she could save her house from foreclosure. In February 2009, Sonja moved in with them. Living under the same roof, however, quickly proved to be untenable. They didn't like the way Sonja treated the children, according to court records. She said they quibbled with her use of their cable television and computer. Sean said she shoved him over a newspaper, according to court records. The couple said they asked Sonja to leave. When she didn't, they called the police to remove her.

It wasn't until after she returned to Plymouth that Sonja realized that some of her uncle's paintings were missing. When she told Adrian, who was already angry with Sean for putting Sonja out, he became enraged. He could tolerate a certain level of familial strife. The McCoy home had rarely been placid. But when the result was the loss of his most treasured and valuable possessions, he couldn't let it go.

Adrian and Sonja became convinced that Sean had somehow taken them to sell and keep the money for himself. Sean, for his part, has repeatedly said the paintings aren't in his possession and he has no idea where they are.

Using one of his uncle's paintings as a retainer, Adrian found a lawyer, Milton Johns, to help retrieve some of the missing art. Johns found about a dozen paintings at a Baltimore gallery called Galerie Myrtis. Sean and Michelle had hired the gallery to sell the paintings on Sonja's behalf, according to the couple and the gallery owner, Myrtis Bedolla. The arrangement had Sonja's approval, Sean said. But Sonja has denied granting it. Bedolla said that she was unable to sell any of the paintings and Johns collected everything that Sean and Michelle had given her to sell. That still left 13 paintings whose whereabouts are not known. Together, Ealey estimated they are worth $165,000.

The conflict has since moved to court. Last year, Adrian filed a motion to compel Sean to account for the missing paintings. At a February 2010 hearing, Sean denied knowing their whereabouts. Afterward he accused Adrian of having something to do with their disappearance. Maybe his uncle traded them for a drink, he suggested. Maybe they were gone long before his mother ever arrived in Virginia Beach.

"When they came to the home we didn't know what was in the boxes. Now here I am in court over something we're not even sure was there," Sean said. "These paintings mean nothing to me."

Adrian said the missing paintings had to be in the boxes before they went to Virginia Beach because he would often take them out to look at them. But at the hearing, he wasn't able to offer any proof. Adrian filed a separate civil suit against Sean over the paintings on Oct. 29, 2010. Since the February hearing, Sean McCoy stopped responding to e-mails and phone messages left by a reporter.

Adrian, who had been living with a friend, is looking for a new place to stay. His electrical work has picked up some, but not enough to cover his expenses. After losing her house, Sonja moved into an apartment in Plymouth. She has not spoken to Sean since she left Virginia Beach. She called his house shortly after the February hearing and told Michelle to wish one of her granddaughters happy birthday. Then she hung up. She fears she won't see her grandchildren again. She is also afraid she won't ever find the missing paintings, which fills her with guilt.

"I am worried he would think I am not a good steward," she said of her uncle, sobbing. "I should have devoted more time to research. He deserved it, the recognition. I pray he can forgive me."

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